Review Summary: Close your eyes and prepare to be swept away into a darkly surreal odyssey into the night that is both wise and spiritual.
The appeal of albums, seemingly enough, has frayed, withered, and torn in the past few years. With the simple keystroke or click of a mouse, anyone can obtain instant music. Thus nearly everyone has turned to buying single songs. Gone are the days in which a listener could put an album on the turntable or in the CD deck and wholeheartedly submit to a single, cohesive experience.
It’s hard to believe when listening to Phish’s fourth album, Rift, that such a conceptual feat could have been mustered and achieved only a little over ten years ago. With Rift, the quartet (Trey, Mike, Page, and Jon) have created an artistic opus that manages to somehow blend the group’s vast array of sounds (including but not limited to jazz, funk, rock, Latin, and psychedelic) into a sonic stew that comes across inviting yet dark.
It is important to note the darkness contained within this piece. When many people think about Phish, acid-bop melodies and hippie harmonies come to mind. While many Phish songs are indeed light-hearted and zany in their offbeat humor, Rift includes very few of these moments. Rather the opposite, actually: the album offers a consistently moody and surreal ride through a series of dreams; dreams that at several points, become nightmares.
Rift begins with its title track, which surmises to tread the waters of the album’s overall feeling/lesson. Herein lies a reason why this album demands repeated listening; the initial introduction to the journey ahead both opens the first-time listener with questions, and rewards the returning listener with a new series of revelations that could not have previously been attained. The track opens with a circus like tumble and roll of sound, beckoning the listener to embark upon the wild voyage into the night. This is precisely what ensues for the remaining duration, as the unnamed main character drifts off to sleep; the spiraling, ambient surge of “Fast Enough For You” sweeping the listener off to the realm of the subconscious.
But before attempting to describe the dream state that stretches to the very end of the album, the nature of the protagonist must first be addressed. Again, as I stated in the introduction, this is a “concept” album, meaning songs are all tied into a universally present theme or story. In the case of Rift, it’s both of these and quite a few other facets. The narrator serves as the roots to the experience, meaning without his personal story the music would have no structure and would come across as a weird, abstract mess. The proverbial roots needn’t be very complicated, and Phish understands this; as with most of their live performances, all they need is a jumping point in which they can begin with proper footing before plunging into the phantasmal mirth and emerge back out again.
So the protagonist has a faltering relationship with his girlfriend, and through tumultuous fallout, emerges very troubled. He goes to bed one strange starry night, and through his dreams departs upon a spiritual journey to both the heart of himself and the cosmos.
And it is this very journey that makes Rift a classic, from the morphing of an alarm clock into a paranoid and furious chiming, the listener is instantly swept away into another land that is both strange and incredibly familiar. Phish manage to re-create the bizarre, abstract, odyssey of a dream into a controlled art-form, a feat that has been attempted many times by writers, musicians, and painters; many of which inevitably fail, as it is nearly impossible to render the subconscious mind into a medium in which thousands of strangers can relate and find solace. With Rift, however, Phish succeeds.
Odd scenes and subtle sounds transpire all around the listener, enveloping with a quirky, winding groove that unifies yet remains unique to each track. With “Horn” comes soaring peaks, akin to dreaming of triumphant mountain summits, while “It’s Ice” summons twisting digressions that pull the listener into a very dark and intense trip.
Again, the darkness surfaces. Expect a heavy listen; make sure to keep an open mind. The story deals with the character’s troubles, and in order to even emerge to the morning sunlight, the character must address these. Thus, many of these uncomfortable transformations range from eerie reckoning to down-right nightmares. Phish use their unhinged harmonic attack to address the cacophony of these issues, meaning free-jazz and howling solos abound in tracks like “Maze,” “My Friend My Friend,” and “It’s Ice.”
Obviously to meet the criterion I’ve mentioned, the musicianship has to be pretty damn impressive, and again Phish delivers. Mike’s bass drops fat pockets of sound, keeps the groove flowing, and pops some funky and burbling phrases to complement Trey’s lead guitar work (see Mike’s song “Weigh”; it’s hard to miss.) Trey, as usual, is in top form here, demonstrating his jazzy, rhythmic, and very lyrical guitar style. He always has something to say, and remains one of the driving creative forces that pushes the music onward. Page’s keys swell to incredible, shimmering heights, provide ambient background glow, and offer funky jabs on the clavinet. Jon shouldn’t be forgotten alongside these great musicians, his drumming offers the zany glue that keeps the chaos within some form of structure.
So please, at least give this album a try. If you enjoy appreciating art for the sake of art, abstract expressions, or just having a different experience, you may too find yourself drifting off. May the dream be one.